(This is part of a series on renewable energy)
PHILADELPHIA, March 12 (Reuters) - After a good meal, how about asking the head waiter if you can take the waste grease from the kitchen to fuel your car?
In the search for sustainable and non-polluting alternatives to fossil fuels, a small band of ecologically minded people are turning to vegetable oil and recycled restaurant grease to run their cars, trucks and even home-heating systems.
Entrepreneurs, some backed by public funds, are proving cars can be run on low-cost materials that are a readily available alternative to environmentally damaging fossil fuels.
One driver, Scotsman Antony Berretti, is so keen on the technology that according to his Web site he spent three months driving his home-converted Fiat van all the way around Europe powered by waste vegetable oil scrounged from restaurants.
"Fancy driving across Europe for free? Fuel cost zero?" is the intriguing proposition
In Easthampton, Massachusetts, Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems makes conversion kits for cars to run on vegetable oil. The company has sold about 3,500 kits during its nine years in business, and says sales have been doubling annually in the last few years.
The kits are priced between $800 and $2,000 and users typically get used vegetable oil from local restaurants that are happy to give it away because they usually have to pay for disposal.
With the increasing popularity of vegetable oil as a motor fuel, a small industry of conversion kit installers has grown up, and some also supply the oil for their customers.
With the cost of engine conversion typically offset in a few months, users can quickly reap the benefits of free fuel. "Beyond that, it's money in your pocket," said Justin Carven, owner of Greasecar.
Fuel consumption for vegetable oil is similar to diesel, which gets 20 to 30 percent better mileage than gasoline. Emissions are much less toxic than those from gasoline, and it's carbon neutral because the carbon dioxide absorbed by the plant from which the oil is derived offsets CO2 generated when it is used as fuel, Carven said.
In Philadelphia, a small company is finding a use for another restaurant by-product.
Philadelphia Fry-O-Diesel converts the foul brown grease from restaurant sink traps into usable, clean-burning biodiesel fuel for heating and transportation.
The project promises to make a modest contribution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions and U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, highlighted by President George W. Bush's recent call for a 20 percent cut in gasoline consumption in the next 10 years.
Fry-O-Diesel and North American Biofuels, based in Long Island, New York, are believed to be the only U.S. companies making biofuels from trap grease.
In Philadelphia, the grease is trucked to the plant after being pumped out of traps that separate it from water in restaurant kitchens.
After 15 months' testing, Fry-O-Diesel says it has proved the concept works.
"We know we meet the standard for biodiesel," said company president Nadia Adawi, referring to government specifications for the fuel.
However, the company's output hasn't fuelled any trucks or heating systems yet -- the experimental facility in an old gasket factory was never intended for commercial production.
That will change, said Adawi, when the company opens a new plant for which it is currently seeking investors.
The company aims to provide a commercial alternative to petroleum-based diesel that can be produced and consumed close to the source of the grease without needing long-distance trucking of fuels, as with some soy-based biodiesel.
According to Fry-O-Diesel, biodiesel can be used in most diesel engines without adaptation -- unlike ethanol which requires a "flex fuel" gasoline vehicle -- and can be alternated with petroleum diesel. The new fuel cuts engine wear because it is a better lubricant than regular diesel, and is biodegradable.
Fry-O-Diesel spent $670,000 to set up the testing plant, $370,000 of which came from a Pennsylvania state grant to encourage alternative fuels. Most of the rest came from the Energy Cooperative, a Philadelphia nonprofit that promotes and distributes renewable fuels.
Despite the zeal of Adawi and her seven mostly part-time colleagues, restaurant grease is never going to be a major energy source because there just isn't enough of it, said Steve Bantz, an engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group in Washington.
If all the estimated 3.8 billion pounds of U.S. restaurant grease produced annually was used, it would make 495 million gallons of biodiesel or heating fuel, equivalent to just 1 percent of the country's diesel consumption, Bantz said, quoting figures from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
While vegetable oil and restaurant grease may never make a big dent in overall energy needs, the existence of such enterprises underlines the urgency of the search for alternatives to fossil fuels, said Bantz.
"We have to look under every rock and down every drain for alternative energy sources," he said.
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